Firefighter PPE gets personal
Having joined Bristol Uniforms over 30 years ago, I have been closely involved with the many changes that have taken place in firefighting both in the UK and around the world. Back in 1981, modern professional firefighter clothing was emerging following the pioneering work undertaken by Bristol and London Fire Brigade. Drawing heavily on Bristol’s early fire garment design, Nomex® fabric was incorporated for the first time in the UK’s Home Office A26 specification bunker style fire coat.
Outside the UK, it is worth remembering that a European wide standard for PPE didn’t become established until the 1990s. The working party, on which Bristol’s technical staff were represented, started work in 1992 and EN469:1995 became the first standard to cover all countries in the European Union. In the USA, the equivalent standard, NFPA 1971, which had been used in specific industries, such as automotive, became the accepted basis for firefighter PPE in the 1970s.
The UK’s early involvement in the development of firefighter PPE has had a pronounced impact on the subsequent evolution of international standards and the UK’s global presence as a designer and manufacturer of world class firefighter garments. Bristol, an exporter of civilian clothing as early as 1830, now provides PPE to firefighters in over 110 countries around the world, offering garments to meet EN, NFPA and ISO standards. Bristol continues to play an active part in the development of these performance standards covering structural, wildland and technical rescue PPE.
Today, PPE is managed in a holistic way so as to optimise the safety of wearers by concentrating not only on protecting them from external hazards, but also internal health risks linked to physiological responses. These have been addressed by improving the flexibility, breathability and wicking attributes of garments and reducing their overall weight. Garments are now individually sized to firefighters to ensure good fit and comfort. The potential health risks associated with dirty or contaminated garments has also placed the focus on garment cleanliness. The UK has led the world in introducing specialised managed care services for firefighter PPE, providing regular garment inspection, washing and repair as well as specialist decontamination facilities. Bar-coding is used to track and record repairs and maintenance. At Bristol, we manage these facilities in-house to ensure garment integrity and extend service life. Outside the UK, we have encouraged similar facilities to be provided to fire and rescue services through trained and experienced third party suppliers.
In the early 1970s it became clear that success in opening up, and growing, overseas markets depended upon having permanent local, and well trained, representation able to identify local needs and specifications. Organisations responsible for emergency services vary from region to region and in the scope of their responsibilities. In Europe, as in the UK, countries organise resources on a regional or local basis. In the Gulf States, firefighting is mainly the responsibility of their Civil Defence.
Bristol now has a global network of some 70 appointed distributors who manage and develop our business overseas. A significant part of our business now originates from outside the UK. Our distributors are visited regularly by our international sales managers who provide technical and product training and support their business development activity. Every couple of years all our distributors are invited to our International Distributors Conference held in Bristol. The three day event provides time for training, presentations from key suppliers and a visit to our factory to be fully acquainted with our advanced manufacturing methods and quality control programmes. They also get to know each other better, to share experiences and collaborate.
I believe that our international success can be attributed, in part, to the innovative approach to the ongoing development of specialist fabrics adopted by leading manufacturers such as DuPont, PBI Performance Products, A W Hainsworth and W L Gore. Close collaboration with them helps to energise our own new product development activities. The recent introduction of our innovative XFlex™ design platform for structural PPE, in both EN469 and NFPA1971 formats, provides the basis for our new RescueFlex™ garments. It has also allowed us to bring to market LayerFlex™, an innovative layered approach to meeting the different needs of technical rescue, structural and wildland firefighting using just three garments in different combinations. This offers inventory simplification and potential cost-savings.
In many parts of the world firefighters spend less than 10% of their time responding to fire call-outs. Equipped with better personal protection and equipment, firefighters are now far more effective in handling a much wider range of response situations, including swifter access into burning buildings, which have all helped to reduce still further the number and extent of injuries and fatalities.
As I travel the world, I am constantly reassured by the commitment of fire authorities to continue the drive to improve the safety and security of their citizens whilst, at the same time, raising the level of protection and safety of firefighters through the procurement of higher performance PPE.